Valley AIDS Council: Defying the ignorance

HARLINGEN — Oscar Lopez remembers confronting doctors and nurses who refused to care for patients dying of AIDS.

“They didn’t want to feed them, they didn’t want to change them, they didn’t want to bathe them,” said Lopez, now director of education at the Valley AIDS Council.

Lopez, now 49, first worked at VAC for two years beginning in 1988. He’d lost quite a few friends to AIDS, so he had a real passion for the job. What he didn’t have much passion for was the ignorance he encountered from the most unlikely of suspects.

The U.S. government had released its findings after extensive research. The research showed AIDS could not be transmitted through casual contact, saliva or tears. Gloves could be used as extra protection against infection. Yet local medical personnel could not be swayed.

Lopez got into more than a few heated arguments with nurses and hospital administrators, showing them the research. Basically, he was fresh out of high school and trying to educate people with advanced degrees who rejected hard science in favor of fear. Meanwhile, AIDS patients continued to suffer without adequate care — in a hospital.

“Food would be left on trays outside their rooms or in their rooms but people would not be fed,” he recalled.

However, the pain didn’t end there. Once the patients died, Lopez and other VAC employees had to find a funeral home which would accept the remains of AIDS patients.

“People were scared, so they wouldn’t accept our clients,” Lopez said. “Parents didn’t have a way to bury their children.”

Although he was enraged at the time by the ignorance, he’s managed to give people some room on this.

Yes, the U.S. government had released its findings, tackling the problem proactively. But “news travels slowly when you get further south.”

Fear can often be a formidable foe against factual information.

“The fear was so huge and they could see what was happening to these patients in front of their eyes,” he said.

There was the stigma attached to the disease. At the time, the largest group of people infected with the virus were gay men. Many of them were in the closet, and their families didn’t know they were having encounters with men until they contracted the disease.

For this reason, part of his AIDS outreach involves encouraging homosexuals to come out.

“I still to this day believe that one of the reasons that so many young gay men are still becoming infected is because they feel the need to lead a secret life,” he said. That does not discount the high rate of infection among straight men and even teenage boys.

However, a closeted homosexual meeting someone on the sly complicates matters in a number of ways, including the practice of safe sex while remaining vigilant about being caught.

“How do you even begin to negotiate safer sex and discuss condoms when you can’t even feel comfortable saying, ‘I am gay. I prefer sex with men,’ or whatever the occasion may be,” he said.

He was quick to point out that AIDS shows no deference to gay or straight males. The highest percentage of AIDS cases here, Lopez said, are found in gay and straight males between the ages of 13 and 24.